Was blind, but now I see.

2 : 4 March 2003



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Copyright © 2001
M. S. Thirumalai

From Three to a Great Multitude

Carolyn Johnson

Jim Elliot, courtesy In Touch Ministries

He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep, to gain what he cannot lose. - - J. Elliot


Jim Elliot was a missionary to the Auca Indians of Ecuador, South America but I believe the greatest impact of his life is seen in the lives of missionaries today. Elisabeth Elliot, Jim's wife, is responsible for compiling many of Jim's journals and letters into the books that, today, tell the story of his life and ministry. Jim Elliot was a man of radical conviction and faith, inspiring countless individuals in their walk with God through his testimony. Although the Aucas were Jim's main focus in missions work, he only ever met three of them, on one occasion, just prior to his death. Consequently, I am persuaded that Jim's example to people of all ages, apart from the Auca Indians, was his primary ministry.


Jim was born in 1927 in Oregon, near Mount Hood, to Fred and Clara Elliot. But the history of the gospel in his life began long before that. The Elliot family immigrated to Toronto, Alberta from southern Scotland in the early 19th century. There John Elliot met a Scottish acquaintance from his homeland and married her; Margaret McAllister. The two were married in a Presbyterian church and John became a pastor. The couple had 8 children, the oldest being Fred. Harry Ironside, a traveling preacher, passed through their home town while Fred was a young man and they began a sort of mentoring relationship. Fred records that it was Harry who taught him "life is worth living only if given over completely to God" (Shadow of the Almighty, 24). Fred began to travel with Harry and also began evangelizing. Eventually, on one of his evangelization road-trips, Fred met young Clara Luginbuhl, a Swiss girl whose parents, Emil and Emma (Maurer), were Methodist. The two fell in love and eventually married and settled in Oregon.

Jim's life growing up was filled with loving care and instruction from both his parents. Jim was in the middle in age among four children, all of which were responsible for the many responsibilities that accompanied a small home-farm. Fred stressed, above all other disciplines, that obedience and honesty were key. Jim's father would also read scriptures to the family daily. The family home was always open to missionaries and guests. As a result, all four Elliot children made decisions to follow Jesus as their Lord early in life. Jim was 6 years old when he began preaching to his friends and neighbors from the lawn swing. Although discipline and responsibility were taken very seriously in the Elliot home, play was also a part of their lives. I imagine their philosophy was similar to that of my own father and grandfather: "If you're gonna' work, work hard. If you're gonna' play, play hard!"


Clara took note of Jim's unique interests as a child. He concerned himself with meticulous tasks such as building model sailing ships and airplanes. He also collected stamps and spent much of his free time reading. His ambition and concern for detail carried him far throughout his schooling experience. He was involved in dramas and was often in the spotlight as a public speaker. In the midst of his involvement, Jim did not waver in his testimony of Christ. One high school friend of his recounts that Jim would always carry a small Bible on top of his books and would witness boldly to groups of people in the halls. He was focused on his responsibilities in school and to his Savior.


After graduating high school, Jim attended Wheaton College in Illinois on faith that God would supply the tuition. And He did. At Wheaton, Jim continued in his steadfastness of knowing God. As a result of his discipline as a disciple of Christ, he had a "singleness of purpose" which most students lacked and everyone noticed (Shadow of the Almighty, 58). It was during this season of his life that Jim took an interest in foreign missions work. He felt it was his responsibility to bring the gospel to those who had never yet heard it. His goal of the harsh foreign field drove him to prepare his mind and spirit as well as his body. He was choosy with his selection of foods for each meal and limited desserts. He also was involved in wrestling to keep his body strong and limber. Every aspect of his life was focused on his future ministry abroad, although at this point, his destination was still ambiguous.


Jim heard or read many statistics of the lack of missionary workers in the world, which apparently motivated him to begin pursuing the field. In 1947, Jim hitchhiked to Mexico with a college friend and stayed with his friend's parents. During his time there, Jim learned Spanish extremely quickly, due to his interest in the culture and outgoing personality. He even taught a children's class before he left six weeks later. Everything about the culture and people intrigued him and he decided that he could never be satisfied with the usual American life.

Despite the Elliot family's dedication to the work of God, Jim's decision was difficult for them to accept. Jim had so much talent and ambition, his mother argued. She felt, because of Jim's intelligence and self-discipline, he could become whatever he wanted to pursue; a doctor, teacher, preacher. And many people raised the question, "Why go overseas to preach the gospel when there are people here who are not yet saved?" Jim's response to these arguments was unwavering. He firmly expressed his desire to wholly consecrate his life to God, no matter the cost. And he believed that going to reach a people who had no testimony of Jesus Christ was the way in which God was leading.


During Jim's time at Wheaton College, he met a classmate who seemed to share many of his same convictions, Elisabeth. He had no real interest in her apart from conversational edification and simple friendship at first. For a period of time, Jim traveled with college friends, doing evangelization meetings around the country and into Canada as well. It was then that he and Elisabeth began corresponding. Jim expressed the same shameless drive to the foreign field in his letters to her as he had expressed to his family. Once, Jim wrote about a discussion he had with an acquaintance on the road. The man Jim discoursed with made a comment stating that he was not "called" to the mission field. To that, as Elisabeth accounts, Jim said, "We don't need a call: we need a kick in the pants!" (Shadow of the Almighty, 54).


Make no mistake about it, Jim Elliot was a man of bold conviction, but he also had a soft heart for the Holy Spirit to speak through. He wrote frequently in his private journals of his desire to be consumed by God. In retrospect, Jim's total surrender to God and aim for the cross seemed almost prophetic of his life and death. Once he wrote, "Give me not a long life, but a full one, like you, Lord Jesus" (Shadow of the Almighty, 55). Indeed, he was completely pliable in the Lord's hands and willing to give even his life for the glory of God.

Jim's ambition remained to bring the gospel to those who never heard its message, however, it was several years before he was able to go to the field. Jim graduated from Wheaton and spent some time at his parents' home in Oregon. He was involved in teaching in the church at his home, but spent a great deal of time reading and studying the Word of God and other writings. He concentrated his focus on knowing God until God moved him forward. Elisabeth continued at Wheaton and eventually graduated from Prairie Bible School in Alberta. Jim and Elisabeth continued corresponding throughout this time.


After a short period of knowing each other as acquaintances and sharing convictions via mail, Jim and Elisabeth began to be drawn together. However, Jim felt the call to the field and believed that God demanded his undivided attention and affection. Elisabeth too had apprehensions about beginning a relationship and they decided that, regardless of whether or not God was one day going to bring them together, now was not the time to engage in a courtship. However, as God's design would have it, their paths crossed several times over the few years apart. Elisabeth began to be led toward South America during these years and, eventually, Jim was given the opportunity to go there.

On February 27, 1952 Jim Elliot and a close friend, Pete, arrived in Quito, Ecuador in South America. Upon arriving, Jim heard about the Auca Indians; an unreached people group farther inland who were known for their savagery and cannibalism. No one had ever attempted translating or writing their language. Jim decided he wanted to be the one to bring them the gospel message. From this point forward, Jim prayed earnestly that the Aucas would hear God's Truth, and that he would have the opportunity to tell them.

Although God had put a specific tribe on Jim's heart, he was not able to delve into that ministry right away. Some preparation was still needed. As Jim was preparing his language skills and culture adaptation, God was preparing Elisabeth. She too came to Quito, Ecuador on April 13, 1952, just a month and a half after Jim had arrived. She and Jim spent some time together in language study in the city and thoroughly enjoyed the company. Soon, Jim moved to a tribe a few hours inland and was able to help establish a school for new believers. The school was among the Puyupungu people, newly reached and evangelized. As Jim taught them, many more put their faith in Christ and were baptized. They were eager to learn and mature in their relationship with God. Soon, Jim felt it necessary to begin handing leadership over to the Puyupungu, who rose to the occasion and began teaching and preaching to their younger believers. Elisabeth was also involved among another tribe, in translation work, just over the mountain ridge from Quito. Consequently, she was able to see Jim on occasion. The visits stopped when Jim was requested to go even further inland to initiate and oversee the clearing of an airstrip by the Shandia River for the Missions Aviation Fellowship to utilize. It would be this airstrip that would be used to deliver mail, food, equipment, and whatever else missionaries would need for survival and ministry while in the jungle. So Jim said his goodbyes and headed inland for Shandia. He enlisted the help of many nationals and began the long process of clearing jungle-land. The men's work was successful, and after many months, the airstrip was complete.


Upon the completion of the airstrip, Jim felt that contact with the Aucas was imminent and felt a freedom, for the first time, that God was allowing him to pursue marriage with Elisabeth. In January of 1953, Jim made the trip back to Quito and sent a messenger to Elisabeth's village, over the mountains. The next day she arrived and Jim proposed; January 30, 1953. They were married in October of the same year; a civil ceremony performed in Spanish. The Lord had blessed them both richly for the five previous years of having a great love for each other, yet being willing to lay it on the altar for the love and service of their Lord. It was obvious to them both at this juncture that God wanted to use them together to reach the Aucas. They continued preparations by studying language study techniques and forming a team of five young married couples.


Nate Saint, the Missions Aviation Fellowship pilot landed beside the Shandia River in September of 1955. Jim wasted no time in organizing a scouting flight and soon the two spotted the first Auca settlement. It was decided soon after this flight that the time was right for the five couples to begin strategy for moving into the Aucas' region. The team gained a little language insight from an Auca girl, Dayuma, who had somehow escaped from the settlement and learned a few choice phrases like "We like you. Trade us a spear for this machete." Nate and Jim made several trips in the airplane, to a place they called "Terminal City," dropping machetes and repeating the memorized phrases over a loudspeaker. They tied a basket onto a rope and lowered it, hoping the Indians would put their traded gifts in it in return. However, they simply cut the basket off and ran away with it. They even cut a length of the rope.

Soon the five missionary couples made their home strategically in a place called Arajuno, just 15 minutes flying time away from Terminal City and the main Auca Settlement. This main Auca settlement was known to the missionaries as "Palm Beach" and was located next to the Curaray River. The five couples were as follows: Nate and Marj Saint (Philip, son; Kathy, Daughter), Pete and Olive Flemming, Ed and Marilou McCully (Michael, son; with child), Roger and Barbara Youderian (Jerry, son; Beth, daughter), Jim and Elisabeth Elliot (Valerie, daughter). Before long, it was decided that the five men would attempt face-to-face contact with the Aucas.


On January 3, 1956, Nate Saint made five flights between Arajuno and Palm Beach, bringing all the men and supplies. On his last flight, while over Terminal City, Nate shouted in Auca, "Come tomorrow to the Curaray" (Through Gates of Splendor, 110). The men built a shelter 30 feet in the trees upon arriving. Then they began to wait. They fished and bathed and relaxed in their shelter. As time passed, they increasingly felt the presence of being watched. Jim eventually walked to the middle of the river and began shouting the learned Auca words of welcome into the jungle, "in the hope that Aucas might be lurking there" (Through Gates of Splendor, 114). Days passed and then finally, on Friday at 11:15 in the morning, three Aucas stepped out of the jungle and met the missionary men. The men named them George, Delilah, and the third later was identified as Dayuma's aunt. George was curious about the airplane and Nate explained as much to him as he could about its design. Delilah was the first to leave at the end of the day, George following her into the jungle. But Dayuma's aunt remained and chattered endlessly into the night beside the fire. As the men awoke the next morning, she was already gone. They assumed she had left in the night.


The missionaries were able to take many pictures of these three Aucas as well as gather some information regarding the Auca language. (The journals of the men disclose this information today). The following day, Saturday, was uneventful for the men. They waited anxiously, but the Indians didn't come. Nate made several air trips over their village, dropping gifts and trying to get a feel for their attitudes about their first meeting. Finally, Nate spotted a group of ten men on their way to the river and he radioed the women back at Arajuno asking for their prayers as this was the day they would meet the Auca men. He landed on the beach, promising to update again at 4:30, and exclaiming the news to the other missionary men.

Four-thirty came and went with no sign of contact. The bodies of the five missionary men were found in the water on January 9th, 1956 by a search party and buried under the tree house they had built only days earlier. The Auca Indians killed the men, apparently without cause. Speculation says that there must have been a misunderstanding or a superstition that lead the Indians to attack when the missionaries had clearly expressed their desire and intentions for a peaceful meeting. By God's grace, all five widows were given comfort to see the situation as God's will and the death of their husbands as ushering them into the presence of God- what could be better?


On a personal note, as I read and reread this story, my heart filled more and more with sorrow. I asked questions like, "Why did God allow them to be massacred when they were so excited to tell the Aucas about Him?" "Why did God allow 5 women and 6 children to become widows and fatherless?" My hurt deepened and I was overwhelmed with sadness. But then the Holly Spirit spoke Truth into my heart; although the death of Jim Elliot, Nate Saint, Pete Flemming, Ed McCully, and Roger Youderian was allowed, it was a demonstration of God's love - in some capacity that I cannot comprehend easily. God loved them by taking them home. God loved their families by providing comfort and all their needs in every aspect. God loved the Aucas by allowing His children to die, ultimately, for their salvation.


Jim Elliot never got the chance to work with the people his heart was burdened for. However, Elisabeth and their young daughter, Valerie, returned several years later and ministered to the Aucas. Eventually, through their efforts, the language was translated and the gospel was shared and received by many among the tribe. Elisabeth dedicated much of her life to working among them. She loved the people who had murdered her husband and that was a testimony to the love God had for them as well.

So what was Jim's life for? He died a young, sudden death, without ever achieving his goal in missions. But he died "Approved Unto God," which was the aim of his life (Shadow of the Almighty, 37). Jim Elliot was a man who left a testimony of a life wholly devoted to the Savior and whose story continues to inspire Christians to do the same. After his death, Elisabeth compiled his journals and their letters and wrote the stories of his life in several books that are available today. I believe that Jim's greatest impact in missions is hidden here- in the legacy of his life, as recorded by his wife.

The Journals of Jim Elliot, Shadow of the Almighty, Through Gates of Splendor, The Savage My Kinsman, and Passion and Purity are some of the books that Elisabeth Elliot wrote and compiled that tell the story of Jim's life. Countless individual's lives have been forever changed by the words that expressed the heart of this godly man and the life that he lived for his Lord. I know this from hearing testimonies of friends and family, however, for the sake of accurately conveying the impact of Jim Elliot's life on another's, I'll write from my own experience.


First, a little historical background is necessary. During the time that Jim was in high school and college, World War II was being played out on the foreign battlefield. This impacted the society in many obvious ways. But one not-so-obvious impact was that American men were gaining exposure to foreign cultures and realizing that they could survive apart from their homeland. Some of these men were Christians who saw the need for the gospel message to be brought to these various oppressed and needy societies (the Philippine Islands, Asia, Europe, etc). Although Jim did not gain his interest in foreign missions as a result of the war, the time of his ministry with the Ecuadorians was during the Student Volunteer Movement. This movement was a time in which college students all across America had the vision and hope that they could bring the gospel to the entire world in fulfillment of the great commission. As a result, thousands of missionaries went out from the United States in the mid-nineteen-hundreds. Unfortunately, this radical push of worldwide evangelization dwindled before the task was completed.

The church in America slowly lost its radical emphasis on overseas missions over several decades. However, on a somewhat encouraging note, we see that missions emphasis seems to move in a cycle, as do most things in life. This is encouraging because we are living in a time when the country- and even the world- is approaching the threshold of another radical missions movement. In times like this, it is vital that those who are preparing to go have the testimony of those who have gone before them.

I had known that I wanted to go into missions before I went to college, but when I got there, I was referred to one of Elisabeth Elliot's books called, Passion and Purity. When I read the testimony of their relationship and how earnest they both were about surrendering it for the sake of the gospel and God's will, I was captivated. I had never before heard of the sort of passion and commitment to God that would give up romantic love. It challenged me, to say the least. I began asking myself if I loved my Jesus enough to give up love in my own life. Did I love Him enough to go to the harshest land and suffer immense hardships? Did I love Him enough to die for him? And if I did, then what would that mean my life today would look like? The Holy Spirit opened scriptures to me about dying daily to myself and to the sin that gasped for life within me. He put convictions in my heart to live for the soul purpose of serving and loving God, and He strengthened me to walk in obedience to Him. My life changed forever.

The story of his life continues to challenge my spirit. Its seemingly tragic ending still pulls at my heart. But I realize something profound in the midst of it all; Jim Elliot's life is a radical inspiration to countless people, but perhaps it would never have been told if he hadn't died so tragically. It's a difficult task to make myself believe that God was loving Jim and Elisabeth and the other women and children who were widowed and fatherless because of their death. It's difficult until I think of the impact his testimony has made on my life and so many others'. It's difficult until I think about those who will hear the gospel as a result of the fruit of our multiplied lives. It's difficult until I remember the Aucas who received the grace of God as a result of Jim's ministry and death.

I wish I could better convey the impact that Jim Elliot's life and death made and continues to make in lives, but for that understanding you must read the actual accounts. It is a priceless experience to hear Jim's testimony. His life truly was wholly devoted to the service of God. And his legacy is bearing fruit for the Kingdom still today.

*** *** ***


Elisabeth Elliot, Passion and Purity. Flemming H. Revell, Grand Rapids; 1984.

Elisabeth Elliot, Shadow of the Almighty. Harper Collins; New York; 1989.

Elisabeth Elliot, The Journals of Jim Elliot. Flemming H. Revell, Grand Rapids; 1999.

Elisabeth Elliot, The Savage My Kinsman. Harper & Brothers, New York; 1961.

Elisabeth Elliot, Through Gates of Splendor. Harper & Brothers, New York; 1958.

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Carolyn Johnson
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